PRESIDENT Barack Obama has drawn a red line against the use of chemical weapons in warfare. And now he has asked the US Congress to authorise the use of military force against Syria, which he accuses of gassing its own people.
But the wall-to-wall coverage on American television has largely overlooked the multilateral due process that is supposed to occur before the United States – or any other nation – acts unilaterally in such matters.
The background to this issue goes all the way back to 1925, when chemical weapons were outlawed after mustard gas was used to horrendous effect by both sides in the First World War. That treaty prohibited the use of poison gas, but not its possession.
By the 1970s and 80s, an estimated 25 countries were developing chemical weapons capabilities, and Iraq actually used such weapons in its 1980s war with Iran. The Reagan administration did nothing to stop this. In fact, it provided intelligence to help the Iraqis defeat Iran.
But after marathon international negotiations over many years, the more comprehensive 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention was produced. This is considered the world’s first disarmament treaty, and it requires infractions to be brought before the international court at the Hague or the UN Security Council for collective action.
Since 1997, most of the world’s chemical weapons stockpiles have been destroyed. But Syria is one of five states that have not signed the 1992 convention, and seven that have not ratified it. However, in 1968, Syria did accede to the 1925 treaty, which outlaws the use of such weapons.
Syria is now in the midst of a brutal civil war that developed following the Arab Spring popular uprisings. The current president, Bashar al-Assad, and his late father, have ruled the country with an iron fist since 1971. The death toll in this civil war has topped 100,000, and both government and opposition forces have been accused of serious human rights violations.
Last year, the United States warned that using chemical weapons was a “red line” for Syria and would result in “enormous consequences” if crossed. Similarly, France and the United Kingdom warned of severe consequences for the use of chemical weapons.
The Assads have developed chemical weapons over several decades as a deterrent against Israel’s presumed nuclear capabilities. Such weapons are considered “the poor man’s atomic bomb,” according to Gregory Koblentz, a security analyst at the US Council on Foreign Relations.
The United States has accused Syria of killing 1,429 of its own people, including more than 400 children, in an August 21 chemical attack on a Damascus suburb. But if the Americans do attack Syria, it would be among the first instances when a state’s use of chemical weapons would have prompted punitive military action.
Hans Blix, who was the chief UN arms inspector for Iraq from 2000-2003, has said that since the Western powers asked for United Nations inspections – and Syria accepted and inspectors were put in the field – we should wait to see their report before action is taken.
“As we’ve seen before, the political dynamics are running ahead of due process,” Blix said. “In one month, when you have accurate tissue samples we will know for sure exactly which kind of chemical weapons have been used and who possesses such weapons.
“If the aim is to stop the breach of international law and to keep the lid on others with chemical weapons, military action without first waiting for the UN inspector report is not the way to go about it.”
Meanwhile, the Obama administration, lacking support from the UN, the Arab League and its closest ally, Britain, has decided to refer the issue of a military strike to the US Congress.
The 22-nation Arab League did condemn Syria for using chemical weapons, but it declined to ask for US intervention. Instead, it called for the international community “to assume their responsibilities in line with the UN Charter and international law by taking the necessary deterrent measures”.
According to UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, the use of chemical weapons by anyone, for any reasons, under any circumstances, would be an atrocious violation of international law, But he said it was essential to establish the facts.
The UN Charter allows only two cases of military action against another state: in self-defence against an imminent attack, and in response to a Security Council resolution. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court categorises the use of chemical weapons as a war crime, but because Syria is not a party to the ICC the court is unable to take up the matter without a UN resolution.
But the Obama administration has said it is futile to pursue a UN Security Council resolution because the Russians and Chinese will simply block it. Russia is a major arms supplier to Syria, and the Chinese favour a political resolution to the Syrian issue.
In 2007, then-candidate Obama argued that no president could authorise military action without Congress, unless the US was in imminent danger. He said the Iraq war “was based on exaggerated fears and unconvincing intelligence. And it has left America less safe, and less respected around the world”.
The 1973 War Powers Act requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days without an authorisation of the use of military force or a declaration of war.
The War Powers Act was passed following the Korean and Vietnam wars, when the United States found itself involved for many years in situations of intense conflict without a declaration of war. But the requirement for congressional approval has been violated many times by both Republican and Democratic presidents.
Former anti-Vietnam War activist John Kerry, who is now the American Secretary of State, said recently the US had hard evidence that the Syrian government had used sarin gas against its own people.
“If the United States is unwilling to lead a coalition of people who are prepared to stand up for the international norm with respect to chemical weapons that’s been in place since 1925, if we are unwilling to do that, we will be granting a blanket licence to Assad to continue to gas,” Kerry said.
He also warned that a retreat from strong US positions against chemical and nuclear weapons would send “a terrible message to the North Koreans, Iranians and others” about whether America was serious about nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
So the US Congress will debate a resolution to approve military action against Syria within days, in the context of America’s gravely divisive domestic politics. This delays whatever will happen, while introducing a measure of uncertainty.
Some say American credibility is on the line if Congress fails to authorise action, or if Obama decides not to proceed after all. But as commentator Rick Ungar noted in Forbes Magazine: “With the largest military on the planet and a defense budget larger than the next top 11 countries combined, could anyone really believe that the world’s leaders now view the United States as a weakened force on the world stage because of a delay in going forward with a lesson-teaching attack on Syria?”
I couldn’t agree more. And we should not be making policy on the basis of lines in the sand anyway.
The fact remains that, for much of its history, the US has been an expansionist and interventionist power - beginning with the destruction and absorption of native American societies. Wars with Mexico and Spain created an empire, and in the post-world war two years the US did whatever it wanted around the world - toppling governments, fixing elections, buying political leaders or plotting to kill them, sponsoring guerrilla wars and mounting invasions.
Some of this muscular force was a necessary part of America’s world leadership role, which includes a responsibility to uphold the international order. But in many cases the interventions were sheer militarism fuelled by arrogance. As such, they often had unintended consequences.
Perhaps the best example is Iran. In 1953, the US and Britain overthrew the elected, moderate prime minister on the pretext that the country’s oil reserves might come under Soviet control. The US fomented Islamic sentiments and hired mobs for a “spontaneous revolution”. And this led inevitably to the aggressively anti-American regime of Ayatollah Khomeini a generation later.
Another example is Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration enthusiastically supported Islamic rebels fighting the Soviet Union. This resulted in the eventual take-over of the country by the Islamo-fascist Taliban, as well as the creation of a virulently anti-American group known as al Qaeda.
As Al Ulmer, chief of the CIA’s Far East division in the 1950s, once chillingly said: “We went all over the world and we did what we wanted. God, we had fun.”
So it’s good to be cautious once in a while. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
• What do you think? Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.